Frank Gore thought he was done. Finished. Thought football wasn’t for him. That he would have to make a living some other way.
He never doubted his physical ability. He questioned whether his frail body would ever let him reach his boundless potential.
In the span of 18 months while playing at the University of Miami, Gore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees. That’s when doubt consumed him.
“My coach [Don Soldinger, UM’s running backs coach at the time], we sat down and talked,” Gore said. “He really wanted me to keep working. He wanted me to get an opportunity to play in the NFL.”
A decade later, Gore is about to play in the biggest game the NFL has to offer. Gore, the bowling ball running back for the San Francisco 49ers, is just days away from appearing in the Super Bowl for the first time.
Gore is one of five former Hurricanes who will play in Sunday’s game. But in terms of overcoming adversity, he might be in a class all his own.
Since stepping onto UM’s campus, the Coral Gables High graduate has injured both knees, both shoulders and a hip.
And he has had to bury his mother far too soon. Liz Gore died in 2007 after a protracted battle with kidney disease. She had been on dialysis since Gore’s junior year in high school — a major reason he decided to stay close to home for college. Yet he was across the country, with the 49ers, when she died at age 46 more than five years ago.
While addressing reporters at the team hotel in New Orleans this week, Gore said he’s dedicating the biggest game of his career to her.
“My mother means everything to me,” Gore said. “She was a tough woman. She raised me and my brother and my sister. That was a lot of weight. I love her. She means everything.”
Gore has meant nearly as much to the Niners’ remarkable turnaround. After winning just 37 games in his first six seasons, San Francisco reached the NFC Championship Game last year, and now the Super Bowl.
And Gore has flourished by learning less is more. Under coach Jim Harbaugh, Gore’s carries are down, but his production is up. Gore averaged 16.1 carries per game in 2012 — his fewest since he was a rookie — yet ran for 1,214 yards, second most in any of his seasons.
He ranked in the top 11 league-wide in rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns.
“He’s just like a bull,” said Ray Rice, the Ravens’ equally dynamic running back. “He goes downhill on you really fast. I think he’s more loose than people think he is. I have respect for his game because if you watch Frank Gore, he doesn’t take the hits.
“He actually delivers them because of his low center of gravity.”
Added Ravens safety Ed Reed, Gore’s former teammate at UM: “He’s the best running back I’ve ever played against.”
Yet nine years ago, he was nearly a former running back. Gore’s first ACL tear came in spring practice while making a cut on the late Sean Taylor. The second came early in the 2003 season, and he ballooned during the ensuing rehab.
Soldinger, now retired but still living in Miami, vividly remembers his seminal chat with Gore after the second injury.
“I told him, ‘You can’t [quit],’ ” Soldinger said. “ ‘God gave you a gift Frankie. You’d be throwing it away.’ ”
Added Soldinger: “He’s the most natural guy, as far as running the football, as there was.”
Gore stuck with it and now has a chance to do something he last accomplished in 2001, as a freshman at Miami: Win a championship.
“It’s a blessing,” Gore said. “You’ve got to have love for what you’re doing, and I do.
“I’m happy I’m still playing the game.”